Life After Losing


July 28, 1991|By SARA ENGRAM

A year ago, Elizabeth Bobo was exactly where she wanted to be -- an elected official in a job she loved, heading into the Democratic primary with no opposition for a second term as Howard County executive.

Now Ms. Bobo is ensconced on the 10th floor of an office building in downtown Baltimore, as deputy secretary in charge of programs for Maryland's Department of Human Resources.

Going from the top of the heap in Howard County to a deputy in the state bureaucracy may sound like a painful fall -- and Ms. Bobo would be the last to say that it has been a painless year. But since November, she has learned that there's life after losing, that important public service can take many forms.

Last summer, Liz Bobo was a politician to be envied. With no primary opposition, she faced only an obscure Republican opponent in November. A former deputy superintendent of schools, Charles Ecker began his campaign unknown to two-thirds of the electorate.

Almost no one expected an upset in Howard County. But it happened.

When all the absentee ballots were counted, Mr. Ecker had won the election by the slimmest of margins, edging out Ms. Bobo by only 450 votes of more than 51,000 cast. She was as stunned as everyone else. "I had no fall-back plans," she says.

Liz Bobo's story is the kind that gives politicians nightmares -- a promising career derailed by a little-known challenger. But that's only if you look at election night.

Since November, Liz Bobo has learned that public service is more than politics -- a lesson any politician could benefit from. Although she doesn't yet talk about "loving" her job, as she still does about being county executive, she talks enthusiastically about how lucky she feels to have a job she really likes.

When the initial shock of her defeat wore off, she contacted Gov. William Donald Schaefer, offering her services to state government. In county politics, her primary interest had always been land use and environmental issues, and with the state facing the challenge of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and planning for future growth, that is the area in which Ms. Bobo thought she could be the most help.

But the governor came up with an unexpected suggestion, a job in social services. She was intrigued, he was persuasive, and that's where she ended up.

For a person accustomed to being at the center of the action, social services might have seemed like a governmental backwater, a department continually struggling with the human misery its workers deal with every day.

But Liz Bobo hasn't found it a backwater at all. "In Howard County, I thought land-use issues were the biggest problem we faced," she says. "But statewide, what could be more beneficial than helping kids grow into productive members of society?"

That is as much an economic analysis as a humanitarian one. For instance, a child protective worker is not just guarding the safety and well-being of a youngster but also helping to enhance that child's chances for growing into a self-sufficient member of society. Likewise, child support enforcement -- one of the department's biggest success stories -- can help keep a single-parent family off the welfare rolls.

Programs such as Project Independence, a welfare program that helps train aid recipients and put them back into the work force, have their own success stories -- women who, with appropriate support, are becoming self-sufficient taxpayers. Success stories are not often associated with social services. Still, Ms. Bobo says, they are far more frequent than the public suspects.

Regardless, when it comes to social services, the greatest successes lie in the stories that don't happen, the situations that, as a result of intervention, don't develop into crises. Prevention is probably the most important part of any social service operation.

Ideally, social services is the place where troubled families and government should interact. Too often, however, the contact comes through the police or the prison systems.

Ms. Bobo's job is, in effect, to decrease the number of times that happens and so far, she says, it's been more challenging than she imagined.

"I've learned the impact an individual can have on the community and the state if we are not successful with child protection or child support," Ms. Bobo says.

"I've probably learned more here [in seven months] than I would have in another term as county executive."

NB Politics, it turns out, is not all there is to public service.

Sara Engram is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The

Evening Sun.

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